Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2016-17, where LastWordOnHockey.com gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2016-17 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the 2015-16 Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
Puck Drop Preview: 2016-17 Pittsburgh Penguins
The Pittsburgh Penguins went on to win the Stanley Cup after a coaching change (with Mike Sullivan replacing Mike Johnston) midway through the season. While the team was again led by superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (the former of whom took home the Conn Smythe Trophy) the young players on the club also made a huge impact, most notably goalie Matt Murray.
Starter Marc-Andre Fleury was injured at the start of the playoffs with a concussion. Because of this injury, 21-year-old Murray and 28-year-old Jeff Zatkoff had to step up as the goalies for the start of the playoffs. After recovering from his own injury, Murray was given the starting role, and went on to start 21 games, the second most out of all goalies during the playoffs, while his 2.08 goals against average and .923 save percentage had him in the Smythe conversation.
The Penguins had a relatively calm off-season compared to some teams. They didn’t lose many players, while the most notable of those who did leave were defenseman Ben Lovejoy and Zatkoff.
Lovejoy had 10 points in 66 games last season, plus six points in 24 playoff games, and he proved himself worthy of being one of the Penguins top six defenders. Lovejoy played a lot with either Olli Maatta or Brian Dumoulin.
Zatkoff signed with the L.A. Kings this off-season and has a chance to get the backup spot if he can outduel Peter Budaj. If he can’t, and will probably be the Ontario Reign’s starting goalie.
The Penguins did make a few signings, though. David Warsofsky was signed to a one-year deal. In 22 games last season between the the Penguins and New Jersey Devils, Warsofsky only had two points.
The 26-year-old defenseman is already at a disadvantage, being only 5’9” and 170 lbs, and his low point totals don’t help. He’s never seen playing time in the Penguins minor league system, but it’d be smart to give him a year there to grew as a player, before giving him more NHL time. Warsofsky has a chance to see more NHL time, but he needs to be able to put up better numbers before he can do that.
The Penguins also added Chad Ruhwedel, who played most of last season in the AHL with the Buffalo Sabres affiliate, the Rochester Americans. In 59 games, he was able to put up 26 points, and was an alternate captain for the team. He also has a chance at seeing a lot more NHL time, even more so than Warsofsky, if he can be counted on to provide a high number of points. Throughout his career, he’s had two points in 33 NHL games.
Overall however, the champions did little to alter a Cup-winning team, partly by being right up against the salary cap ceiling, and partly by virtue of already having a championship-caliber roster.
The Penguins forwards look like they could really shine in the league this year. Obviously the first two lines shouldn’t have too much trouble, with two of the best centers in hockey leading the way in Crosby and Malkin. Sheary and Rust were both big names in last season’s playoffs, and will be popular this season because of it.
Nick Bonino’s line, dubbed the “HBK” line last year, will be looked upon to be very productive. With a mix of speed and lethal scoring ability, they constitute likely the best third line in the NHL.
The fourth line will change at least a few times this season. Scott Wilson and Tom Kuhnhackl both had decent games when they did get NHL playing time. Wilson had six points in 24 games, but five of those were goals. If he sees regular playing time this season, he has a chance to score quite a lot. Kuhnhackl had 15 points in 42 games.
Meanwhile, 39-year-old center Matt Cullen looked reinvigorated last year, providing a strong veteran presence and even better face-off ability to the fourth line. He re-signed with the Penguins over the summer to a one-year deal.
All three of the fourth line positions will be fought for, and if Wilson, Fehr, or Kuhnhackl can’t prove their worth, the spots will be quickly filled by others. Those others most likely being Daniel Sprong, Josh Archibald, and Oskar Sundqvist. All three players have been itching for an opportunity to show they’re NHL-ready, but none have had too many chances. If the fourth line can’t prove their worth, the young players might finally get their shot at doing it.
Similar to the offense, the defense in Pittsburgh has a lot of people fighting for spots lower down the lineup, as the top four is essentially set.
Justin Schultz is a newcomer to the team, only playing for the Penguins in 18 games last season (plus 15 more in the playoffs). He’ll most likely see a lot more playing time this season, but he’ll have to hold strong because Derrick Pouliot, among others, could push for his spot. The same goes for Tim Erixon, who has had a journeyman’s career so far. It’ll be interesting to see how the Penguins defense changes throughout the course of the season.
Matt Murray deserves the starting spot. After his extremely successful playoffs that lead the Penguins to the Stanley Cup, it’s hard to argue against that. He topped all goalies in last season’s playoffs with a total of 15 wins in 21 starts. He also went 9-2-1 in 13 regular season games last season. He has proven to the organization, and the NHL, that he is not only NHL-ready, but capable of being one of the better goalies in the league.
This season will be when his skills are put to the test. He has yet to play in more than 13 regular season games, but he should see more than 35 starts this season. If he is able to be the same goalie we saw in the playoffs, he will have no problem holding onto the starting role.
That’s not without a fight though. Incumbent veteran starter Marc-Andre Fleury has personally said he isn’t going to let Murray take the 1A spot without a challenge. Fleury had a very good season last year, going 35-17 in 58 starts. He will put up a good contest for Murray when they battle for the starting role this season.
Overall, the split of starts between the starter and the backup this season should be relatively even, with the starter getting a few more starts, obviously. But no matter who gets what role, the skill that the Penguins have in net is one of the best in the league.
Players to Watch
Rust will be an interesting name to watch this season. He had 11 points in 41 NHL games last season, and upped his offense with six goals and nine points in 23 post-season games, but has never faced an entire season. Like Murray, this will be Rust’s first chance to prove he has what it takes to be an NHL regular. He might even see a progressive increase in playing time if he is able to find his groove early in the season, particularly if he lines up beside Malkin.
Kessel will also be a fun player to watch. He had 59 points in 82 games last season in his first year with the Penguins, however much more was expected of him. Most players take a year to get settled in after a trade, but not Kessel. If he can play the same way this year, he will easily break the 65 point-mark. He is one of the older players on the team, being 29, but shows absolutely no signs of declining.
Players on the Rise
Olli Maatta is finally an NHL veteran, and had a good season last year. He had 19 points in 67 games and played very well on the defensive end of the ice. He’s only 22, and could easily grow to be one of the best defensemen in the NHL. This could be an important season for the young defender, as he should see a lot of playing time and will really be relied upon as the one of the backbones of the Penguins blue line. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him put up 30 points this year, assuming his health issues are finally behind him.
Kuhnhackl will likely get a lot more playing time this season. Although he may not play in all 82 games, he should play in more than the 42 he did last season. The main reason for this is the fact that he had 15 points in those games. Although it’s not a jaw-dropping number, it is certainly significant given his limited ice time (a little more than 12 minutes per game). He should finally establish himself as an NHL-regular.
Players on the Decline
Fehr is clearly on the decline. Throughout his NHL career, teams have usually been able to rely on him for 25-30 points a season. However, last season he was only able to put up 14 in 55 games. The 31-year-old is signed through the 2017-18 season, but could see his playing time decrease as younger players push for a roster spot.
Cullen was a surprise key contributor last season, netting 16 goals (his highest total since 2009-10) and 32 points in 82 games, plus another six points in 24 post-season contests on the way to his second career Stanley Cup. However, at 39 years old it’s unfair to expect a repeat from Cullen, and while he should continue to be a strong presence in both the locker room and face-off circle, his career is nearing the end.
2016-17 Season Predictions
The Penguins should again compete for the Metro division crown this year. With a strong defense, an amazing pair of goalies, and a star forward lineup, they’ll breeze through the other contenders in their division, with the rival Washington Capitals likely being the only team which can put up a fight.
If they can keep this fire burning into the playoffs, they’ll go on another long run. It’ll be tough for teams to stop them, but that doesn’t mean the Penguins are guaranteed a spot in the Eastern Conference Final or even a repeat Stanley Cup Final appearance.
Their third and fourth lines will need to be able to be counted on this season, instead of putting all the weight on the stars above them. Similarly, the defense doesn’t have much room for error if they want to accomplish this feat. Luckily, the Penguins have such good defensive depth, it’s highly unlikely that there is going to be a problem.
Expect the Penguins to again be a powerhouse in the Eastern Conference and go on another long playoff run.